Where did writing begin?

I thought this would make for a slightly different post. We’re talking a lot about written communication. So, what about writing’s first beginnings for humanity?

Map of Mesopotamia
Map of Mesopotamia, captioned in German. From Wikimedia Commons, created by user NordNordWest and made available under a Creative Commons licence.

The earliest known writing seems to be from the ancient civilisation of Sumer; which suits me because I think Sumer is cool!

It’s pretty much the birthplace of (western) civilisation. Maybe you haven’t heard of it. No-one knew it had existed until archaeological evidence began to be uncovered in the mid-1800s. Sumer was the first in a series of civilisations in the area we call Mesopotamia, between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. Today that area is Iraq. The recent war was taking place around the remnants of the first cities.

Sumerian civilisation became established around 3000-4000 BC, with around a dozen independent city-states using irrigation to practise intensive agriculture, and prospering enough to need to record food surpluses and crafted goods, and to administer public works projects. They started using tokens as an accounting record, then as the numbers of tokens became unwieldy they used marks on clay to signify numbers of tokens. I’m not sure whether it’s reassuring or depressing that people were struggling with accounting 6000 years ago!

Cuneiform tablet
Cuneiform tablet from the Kirkor Minassian collection in the US Library of Congress, ca. 24th century BC. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

By around 3600 BC they had developed a system of pictographs to record a more complex range of ideas. For instance the Kish tablet, carved on limestone around 3500 BC, may – if you choose your criteria right – be the oldest known written document! In symbols it talks about how to rid tracts of land of a plague of locust and caterpillars. (Image not included here as I’m not sure whether the rights allow it.)

By around 3000 BC the Sumerians had developed cuneiform (“wedge-shaped”) script, named for the shape of the stylus used to press marks into clay tablets. This gradually developed away from picture-symbols to a smaller set of characters made of marks, representing syllables of the spoken language. Writing had developed from counting bushels to poetry and culture stories like the famous Epic of Gilgamesh, about a hero-king who tries to overcome death.

Cuneiform writing was adopted by the Assyrians and Babylonians, and by later civilisations in the region, remaining in use till the first century AD.

I should say that other ancient cultures developed their own forms of writing – in Egypt and the Indus Valley, for instance. Maybe future finds and theories will overturn the idea of the Sumerians getting there first.

An actual alphabet, with symbols representing phonetic sounds, came much later from another culture not too far away. “Phoenicia” is a label we apply to a Canaanite people with city-states around the Mediterranean coast from 1550 BC to 300 BC. They developed a set of symbols representing consonants (only), probably influenced by cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics. The key thing about the Phoenicians was that they were red-hot sea traders (with a particular line in purple dye made from snails). As their ships travelled round the Mediterranean they spread their writing as well. It is thought to be the ancestor of all modern phonetic alphabets.

In the 8th century BC the Greeks developed this into a full alphabet including both consonants and vowels. A few centuries later a tribe called the Latins adapted this. They went on to build the Roman Empire, spreading the Latin alphabet across the known world – and we still use it today.

So there you are, from anti-caterpillar spells to Harry Potter in a few paragraphs!


Sourced from Wikipedia articles:
Writing – History of writing
History of the alphabet


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